Wednesday 12 August 2020

Streaming - John Baxter finds enjoyment in one of David Mamet's tricky stories SPARTAN (USA, 2004)


                                   David Mamet (centre) directs Val Kilmer, Derek Luke

When a city in Attic Greece asked Sparta for an army to drive some barbarians from its gates, the Spartans sent just one man. If David Mamet’s film Spartan is to be believed, their expertise survives in the 75thRanger Regiment, US Army, the informal motto of which, in a nod to its historical antecedents, is “One riot, one Ranger.” 

The ”one Ranger” in Spartan is Master Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Scott, embodied in the person of Val Kilmer. Not the most expressive of actors, Kilmer can make a fence-post appear animated. Fortunately Scott employs the kind of gnomic utterance raised to its peak of refinement in fortune cookies. (No wonder then that the adjective “laconic” derives from  Laconia,the territory that Spartans called home.)

Kristen Bell, Val Kilmer

Scott has been borrowed by the elite Delta Force to help winnow a bus-load of recruits down to a handful. His decisions need no more than a glance. Called in to watch two candidates fight hand to hand for the last spot, he lingers for only a second before murmuring his choice and disappearing. The rejects are bussed away by a sergeant apparently trained by Full Metal Jacket’s foul-mouthed drill sergeant Lee Ermey. “I got two things for you boys,” he snarls. “A stiff dick and bubble gum, and guess what? I’m out of bubble gum.” 

Since 2004, thanks to the John Wick,Taken and Transporter franchises, we’ve had a good deal of cold-eyed mayhem. Aside, however, from Keanu Reeves’ “You killed my dog!”, Liam Neeson’s “Where’s my daughter?” and Jason Statham’s “Rule One. Don’t change the deal”,  the language component of these films is sparse. 

Scott doesn’t say much either, communicating mostly in slogans, aphorisms and metaphors, but as this is a Mamet film, most are engagingly lucid. 

“In the city, always a reflection,” he tells his sidekick Curtis (Derek Luke). “In the forest, always a sound,” 

“And in the desert?” 

Scott’s lips become, if possible, even more compressed, “You don’t want to go in the desert.” 

 Naturally, then, it’s in the desert, or at least Dubai, that Scott finds himself, the Emir’s Human Resources department, in a tireless search for harem-fodder, having inadvertently scooped up the First Daughter (Kristen Bell). In an added complication, the President decides she’s worth more votes kidnapped - or, better still, dead. 

Ed O'Neill, William H. Macy

Once the story settles down into a mano a mano between Scott and White House fixer William H. Macy, it’s only words that keep things interesting. Fortunately Mamet shares with John Milius a flair for the military one-liner. Both had the kind of mis-spent youth that develops a junk-yard- dog’s ear for idiom. Mamet says he got through college on “poker, ping pong, sex and drugs,” while Milius lived in an abandoned Malibu gun emplacement, surfing, watching Kurosawa movies and dreaming of Vietnam;  reflections he condensed into lines like “I love the small of napalm in the morning. It smells like...victory”  A similar sign in the Rangers’ inner sanctum reminds us of their affinity. “These are the precincts of pain, A beautiful goddess lives here. Her name is Victory.” 

As with Milius, Mamet’s best lines are not written but spoken. On paper they die, butterflies pinned to a card. Mamet did some of his early work in radio drama, a medium economical with words and careful how they’re used. One hears its echo when Curtis tries to give his name. Scott cuts him short. “I don’t need to know that. If I want camaraderie, I’ll join the Masons.”  Knife fighter Jackie (Tia Texada) is more his speed. When she offers her services, it’s with a terse statement of principles. “Never been but two people in green. Nothing goes beyond that.” I hear you, soldier.

Tia Texada

Even routine exchanges in Spartan have a “What did he say?” spin that makes you, well, me, anyway - rewind and listen again.  

“Did you burn me?” Scott hisses to helper Jones (Australian actor Kick Gurry) when plans start to go wrong. 

“Can’t say I did,” he replies tonelessly 

“Want to prove it?” (What a  wealth of meaning in that simple query; plea, announcement, threat.)

 “Well, the lord hates a coward,” says Jones, without heroics; with, in  fact, Mamet’s trade-mark lack of affect that engenders tension while apparently disguising it. Mamet knows that words don’t always say what we mean but do say who we are. 

Long-time collaborator Ed O’Neill (he’s Burch, the ruthless White House/Army cut-out) tells a story about The Untouchables, which Mamet wrote.  Robert DeNiro wanted new lines for a scene where Al Capone discourses on the significance of neckties. Director Brian de Palma called Mamet and asked him to write them - as “a favour.” 

“A favour,” Mamet explained patiently,“is when I pick up your kids from school. A scene about neckties is ..” He pondered a moment .”....a hundred thousand dollars.” 

And if you want camaraderie, join the Masons.

Editor's Note: A good copy of  Spartan  is streaming if you click here

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